By Tony Swan
Two roadsters with common attributes -- tidy dimensions, convertibility, two seats, lively responses, fair-weather fun -- and similar pricing. Comparable in terms of all-around practicality, too, which is to say, very limited.
A couple of toys, really. Transportation for the spirit without all the filters that muffle the bond between car and driver in more practical automobiles. And in that respect, the similarity between the 2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata and the new 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster is particularly pronounced.
But similar doesn't mean they are identical.
Like prize-winning recipes, both cars are composed of the same basic ingredients, structural distinctions notwithstanding. But the strength of each ingredient varies from one recipe to another, and the finished dishes emerge with their own flavors: One distinctly spicy, the other smooth and sophisticated.
Which is preferable? If we leave price out of the equation, it's obviously a matter of taste.
But how often do we leave price out of our new car purchase considerations -- particularly when we're contemplating cars at the affordable end of the spectrum?
So in the end, it comes down to value -- what you get for your money. And on that basis, the Mazda MX-5 – the more veteran of the two players -- prevails.
Second Place: 2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster
As with other members of the Mini family, the "S" denotes the middle performance version of the Roadster. It's powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that delivers 181 horsepower and 197 lb-ft of torque.
Mated with the standard 6-speed manual transmission, a very precise unit that's a pleasure to operate, the S Roadster is capable of sprinting to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, covering a quarter-mile in 15.1 seconds at 94 mph, and attaining a top speed of 141 mph.
The turbocharged engine's throttle response is prompt, giving the Mini an acceleration edge across the board versus its rival. And it does so with a distinct advantage in EPA fuel economy ratings, too: 27 mpg city, 35 highway, versus 21/28 for the Mazda.
In the realm of sports car agility and all-around dynamics, the distinctions are more subtle. The Mini's stiffer suspension tuning limits body roll in quick maneuvers, its steering is race-car quick and laser precise, and its braking performance is strong. But the Miata measures up well in these areas, too, with the bonus of significantly better ride quality. The Mini's run-flat tires and firm suspension can be a little too unyielding on bumpy pavement, reminding occupants of every freeway expansion joint.
The inner Mini continues the cheerfully defiant, retro-made-modern instrument and control design that helps set these cars apart from the herd. The toggle switches and pizza-size (8-inch) central speedometer conjure the Mini's thrilling days of yesteryear, when Paddy Hopkirk won the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, while contemporary bucket seats deliver all-day support and comfort.
The Mini also manages to feel a little roomier than the MX-5, and a pass-through to the trunk makes it easier to deal with certain cargo situations.
On the downside, the Mini's standard top is manually operated. Opening and closing is easy, with a single header latch, but not as easy as operating the soft top that's standard on a Miata. The Mini's single layer top doesn't do much to keep noise out of the cabin, and a power-operated top -- absent in our test car -- adds $750.
All else being more or less equal, the Mini's Achilles' heel in this comparison is its pricing. While the S Roadster starts at $28,050 with $700 in destination charges, our Mini's as-tested sticker price was $33,650, including:
Premium Package ($1,750, including theft alarm, keyless entry, chrome line interior, auto climate control, auto-dimming rear view mirror); 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels ($1,000); premium harman/kardon audio ($750); Bluetooth and iPod adapter ($500); silver metallic paint ($500); wind deflector ($250); and assorted trim add-ons that included hood stripes that looked like they'd been worked over with a Ginsu knife. Conspicuous by its absence was cruise control, which really should be part of the package in a car costing over $30,000.
Compared to the other car in the ring, the Mini Cooper S Roadster's numbers add up to less car for more money.
Still, while purists may argue that front-wheel drive and sports car are mutually exclusive concepts, we suggest that one test drive in this car will shatter that notion. This cheeky little drop-top has the soul of a terrier.
Winner: 2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition
Though Mazda has tinkered with the name, the basic concept has changed very little over the decades. A 2006 makeover added updated styling, chassis improvements, and increased power, but this is still the quintessential classic British roadster made modern. And still affordable.
Miata challengers have come and gone over the years -- GM's ill-fated Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky duo, the Toyota MR2 Spyder, and remember the Mercury Capri? -- with the Mini Roadster being the latest. Even Mazda's own RX-8 has gone away, giving the MX-5 Miata an increased role in sustaining the company's zoom-zoom image.
Unlike the Mini Roadster, the Mazda MX-5 offers just one engine -- a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder rated for 167 horsepower (158 when mated with an automatic transmission) and 140 lb-ft of torque.
While the MX-5 is a little lighter than its new rival, it's also down on torque, ceding acceleration superiority to the Mini. Shifts aren't quite as crisp with the Mazda's 6-speed manual transmission, although this distinction is essentially academic. Similarly, the Miata's steering is neither as quick nor as tactile as the Mini's, but again, the driver's sense of oneness with the car is basically above reproach.
Where the Miata does trail the Mini Roadster is in quick maneuver response. There's more body roll in hard cornering and rapid transitions, in contrast to the Mini's feline reflexes. On the other hand, that's the trade for ride quality that's considerably more supple, suspension tuning that's evolved over decades of feedback from Miata owners.
Beyond that, it's worth noting that the MX-5's rear-drive layout is ultimately a better bet for absolute handling in activities such as track days and autocross events, duty seen by many Miatas.
This is a familiar car, inside and out. Aside from the annual Special Edition packages, which are basically cosmetic, the Mazda Miata has changed very little since its most recent update. The interior layout is straightforward, with control locations -- steering wheel, shifter, pedals -- that are sports car perfect.
The nicely bolstered bucket seats are road-trip comfortable, the instruments are classic white-on-black, there's less top down turbulence than in the Mini, and of course, opting up to a version of the Miata with the folding hardtop makes for a much quieter cockpit.
All in all, a sweet little sports car that's fun to drive quickly and pleasant to live with on an everyday basis.
But the trump card here is content. For $1,630 less than our 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster S, the Miata Special Edition includes heated leather seats (the Mini is furnished with leatherette), cruise control, control arm front suspension (versus the Mini's struts), a limited slip differential, a brace connecting the front shock absorber towers for additional chassis stiffening and, the piece de resistance, a power folding hardtop, 12 seconds up, 12 seconds down.
The Chase Continues
Given the right roads and sufficient sunshine, each of these cars is capable of improving a driver's short-term outlook on life. And if the front-drive Mini Roadster better plucks your heartstrings, feel free to follow that tune.
But the rear-drive Miata is a legend. It's arguably the purest, most satisfying sports car ever put within easy reach of those automotive fun-seekers more satisfied by finesse and feel than power and volume.
It's that mastery of refinement and intangibles -- and a price advantage, in this instance -- that makes the Miata so hard to beat.